Ella Al-Shamahi: The fascinating (and dangerous) places scientists aren't exploring

Recorded atApril 15, 2019
Duration (min:sec)15:40
Video TypeTED Stage Talk
Words per minute163.88 slow
Readability (FK)55.98 medium
SpeakerElla Al-Shamahi

Official TED page for this talk


We're not doing frontline exploratory science in a huge portion of the world -- the places governments deem too hostile or disputed. What might we be missing because we're not looking? In this fearless, unexpectedly funny talk, paleoanthropologist Ella Al-Shamahi takes us on an expedition to the Yemeni island of Socotra -- one of the most biodiverse places on earth -- and makes the case for scientists to explore the unstable regions that could be home to incredible discoveries.

Text Highlight (experimental)
100:12 So I've got something that I'm slightly embarrassed to admit to.
200:17 At the age of 17,
300:19 as a creationist,
400:21 I decided to go to university to study evolution
500:24 so that I could destroy it.
600:26 (Laughter)
700:28 I failed.
800:29 I failed so spectacularly that I'm now an evolutionary biologist.
900:33 (Applause)
1000:36 So I'm a paleoanthropologist, I'm a National Geographic Explorer
1100:39 specializing in fossil hunting in caves
1200:42 in unstable, hostile and disputed territories.
1300:45 And we all know that if I was a guy and not a girl,
1400:49 that wouldn't be a job description, that would be a pick-up line.
1500:52 (Laughter)
1600:54 Now, here's the thing. I do not have a death wish.
1700:57 I'm not an adrenaline junkie.
1800:59 I just looked at a map.
1901:02 See, frontline exploratory science does not happen as much
2001:06 in politically unstable territories.
2101:09 This is a map of all the places which the British Foreign Office
2201:13 have declared contain red zones, orange zones
2301:16 or have raised some kind of a threat warning about.
2401:19 Now I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that it is a tragedy
2501:23 if we're not doing frontline exploratory science in a huge portion of the planet.
2601:28 And so science has a geography problem.
2701:32 Also, as a paleoanthropologist,
2801:35 guys, this is basically a map of some of the most important places
2901:38 in the human journey.
3001:40 There are almost definitely fascinating fossils to be found here.
3101:44 But are we looking for them?
3201:47 And so as an undergraduate, I was repeatedly told
3301:50 that humans, be they ourselves, homo sapiens, or earlier species,
3401:55 that we left Africa via the Sinai of Egypt.
3502:00 I'm English, as you can probably tell from my accent,
3602:03 but I am actually of Arab heritage,
3702:05 and I always say that I'm very, very Arab on the outside.
3802:08 You know, I can really be passionate.
3902:10 Like, "You're amazing! I love you!"
4002:12 But on the inside, I'm really English, so everybody irritates me.
4102:15 (Laughter)
4202:20 It's true.
4302:21 And the thing is, my family are Arab from Yemen,
4402:25 and I knew that that channel,
4502:28 Bab-el-Mandeb,
4602:30 is not that much of a feat to cross.
4702:32 And I kept asking myself this really simple question:
4802:36 if the ancestors to New World monkeys could somehow cross the Atlantic Ocean,
4902:42 why couldn't humans cross that tiny stretch of water?
5002:46 But the thing is, Yemen,
5102:48 compared to, let's say, Europe,
5202:50 was so understudied
5302:52 that it was something akin to near virgin territory.
5402:56 But that, along with its location, made the sheer potential for discovery
5503:03 so exciting,
5603:05 and I had so many questions.
5703:08 When did we first start using Bab-el-Mandeb?
5803:11 But also, which species of human besides ourselves made it to Yemen?
5903:16 Might we find a species as yet unknown to science?
6003:20 And it turned out, I wasn't the only one who had noticed Yemen's potential.
6103:24 There was actually a few other academics out there.
6203:27 But sadly, due to political instability, they moved out, and so I moved in.
6303:32 And I was looking for caves:
6403:35 caves because caves are the original prime real estate.
6503:40 But also because if you're looking for fossils in that kind of heat,
6603:44 your best bet for fossil preservation is always going to be caves.
6703:48 But then, Yemen took a really sad turn for the worse,
6803:53 and just a few days before I was due to fly out to Yemen,
6903:57 the civil war escalated into a regional conflict,
7004:01 the capital's airport was bombed
7104:03 and Yemen became a no-fly zone.
7204:08 Now, my parents made this decision before I was born:
7304:12 that I would be born British.
7404:16 I had nothing to do with the best decision of my life.
7504:21 And now ...
7604:23 Now the lucky ones in my family have escaped,
7704:28 and the others, the others are being been bombed
7804:31 and send you WhatsApp messages that make you detest your very existence.
7904:39 This war's been going on for four years.
8004:42 It's been going on for over four years, and it has led to a humanitarian crisis.
8104:48 There is a famine there,
8204:50 a man-made famine.
8304:52 That's a man-made famine, so not a natural famine,
8404:55 an entirely man-made famine that the UN has warned
8504:59 could be the worst famine the world has seen in a hundred years.
8605:04 This war has made it clear to me more than ever
8705:07 that no place, no people deserve to get left behind.
8805:13 And so I was joining these other teams, and I was forming new collaborations
8905:16 in other unstable places.
9005:18 But I was desperate to get back into Yemen,
9105:22 because for me, Yemen's really personal.
9205:27 And so I kept trying to think of a project I could do in Yemen
9305:32 that would help highlight what was going on there.
9405:35 And every idea I had just kept failing,
9505:39 or it was just too high-risk, because let's be honest,
9605:42 most of Yemen is just too dangerous for a Western team.
9705:47 But then I was told that Socotra, a Yemeni island,
9805:53 was safe once you got there.
9905:56 In fact, it turned out there was a few local and international academics
10006:01 that were still working there.
10106:03 And that got me really excited,
10206:06 because look at Socotra's proximity to Africa.
10306:12 And yet we have no idea when humans arrived on that island.
10406:18 But Socotra, for those of you who know it,
10506:21 well, let's just say you probably know it for a completely different reason.
10606:25 You probably know it as the Galapagos of the Indian Ocean,
10706:28 because it is one of the most biodiverse places on this earth.
10806:33 But we were also getting information
10906:35 that this incredibly delicate environment and its people
11006:39 were under threat
11106:40 because they were at the frontline of both Middle Eastern politics
11206:44 and climate change.
11306:46 And it slowly dawned on me that Socotra was my Yemen project.
11406:52 And so I wanted to put together a huge multidisciplinary team.
11506:57 We wanted to cross the archipelago on foot, camel and dhow boat
11607:01 to conduct a health check of this place.
11707:04 This has only been attempted once before, and it was in 1999.
11807:07 But the thing is, that is not an easy thing to pull off.
11907:12 And so we desperately needed a recce,
12007:14 and for those of you who aren't familiar with British English,
12107:17 a recce is like a scouting expedition.
12207:19 It's like a reconnaissance.
12307:20 And I often say that a really big expedition without a recce
12407:27 is a bit like a first date without a Facebook stalk.
12507:31 (Laughter)
12607:32 Like, it's doable, but is it wise?
12707:35 (Laughter)
12807:39 There's a few too many knowing laughs in this room.
12907:42 Anyway, so then our recce team thankfully were no strangers to unstable places,
13007:48 which, let's be honest, is kind of important
13107:50 because we were trying to get to a place between Yemen and Somalia,
13207:54 And after calling in what felt like a million favors,
13307:58 including to the deputy governor,
13408:01 we finally found ourselves on the move,
13508:05 albeit on a wooden cement cargo ship
13608:08 sailing through pirate waters in the Indian Ocean
13708:12 with this as a toilet.
13808:14 (Laughter)
13908:15 Can you guys see this?
14008:19 You know how everybody has their worst toilet story?
14108:23 Well, I've never swam with dolphins before.
14208:28 I just went straight to pooping on them.
14308:30 (Laughter)
14408:35 And also, I genuinely discovered that I am genuinely less stressed
14508:42 by pirate waters
14608:43 than I am with a cockroach infestation
14708:47 that was so intense
14808:49 that at one point I went belowdeck,
14908:51 and the floor was black and it was moving.
15008:54 (Audience moans)
15108:55 Yeah, and at night there was three raised platforms to sleep on,
15209:00 but there was only -- let's say there was four team members,
15309:03 and the thing is, if you got a raised platform to sleep on,
15409:06 you only had to contend with a few cockroaches during the night,
15509:09 whereas if you got the floor, good luck to you.
15609:12 And so I was the only girl in the team and the whole ship,
15709:16 so I got away without sleeping on the floor.
15809:19 And then, on, like, the fourth or fifth night,
15909:22 Martin Edström looks at me and goes, "Ella, Ella I really believe in equality."
16009:27 (Laughter)
16109:31 So we were sailing on that cement cargo ship for three days,
16209:36 and then we slowly started seeing land.
16309:41 And after three years of failing,
16409:44 I was finally seeing Yemen.
16509:46 And there is no feeling on earth like that start of an expedition.
16609:51 It's this moment where you jump out of a jeep
16709:54 or you look up from a boat
16809:57 and you know that there's this possibility,
16909:59 it's small but it's still there,
17010:02 that you're about to find something
17110:04 that could add to or change our knowledge of who we are and where we come from.
17210:09 There is no feeling like it on earth,
17310:12 and it's a feeling that so many scientists have
17410:16 but rarely in politically unstable places.
17510:20 Because Western scientists are discouraged or all-out barred
17610:25 from working in unstable places.
17710:28 But here's the thing:
17810:30 scientists specialize in the jungle.
17910:33 Scientists work in deep cave systems.
18010:37 Scientists attach themselves to rockets and blow themselves into outer space.
18110:42 But apparently, working in an unstable place
18210:44 is deemed too high-risk.
18310:47 It is completely arbitrary.
18410:49 Who here in this room wasn't brought up on adventure stories?
18510:55 And most of our heroes were actually scientists and academics.
18611:00 Science was about going out into the unknown.
18711:03 It was about truly global exploration, even if there were risks.
18811:09 And so when did it become acceptable to make it difficult for science to happen
18911:14 in unstable places?
19011:17 And look, I'm not saying that all scientists should go off
19111:20 and start working in unstable places.
19211:22 This isn't some gung-ho call.
19311:24 But here's the thing:
19411:27 for those who have done the research, understand security protocol
19511:32 and are trained,
19611:34 stop stopping those who want to.
19711:37 Plus,
19811:39 just because one part of a country is an active war zone
19911:43 doesn't mean the whole country is.
20011:45 I'm not saying we should go into active war zones.
20111:48 But Iraqi Kurdistan looks very different from Fallujah.
20211:52 And actually, a few months after I couldn't get into Yemen,
20311:56 another team adopted me.
20411:58 So Professor Graeme Barker's team were actually working in Iraqi Kurdistan,
20512:04 and they were digging up Shanidar Cave.
20612:07 Now, Shanidar Cave a few decades earlier
20712:10 had unveiled a Neanderthal known as Shanidar 1.
20812:16 Now, for a BBC/PBS TV series we actually brought Shanidar 1 to life,
20912:20 and I want you guys to meet Ned, Ned the Neanderthal.
21012:25 Now here's the coolest thing about Ned.
21112:28 Ned, this guy,
21212:30 you're meeting him before his injuries.
21312:33 See, it turned out that Ned was severely disabled.
21412:38 He was in fact so disabled that there is no way he could have survived
21512:42 without the help of other Neanderthals.
21612:45 And so this was proof that,
21712:47 at least for this population of Neanderthals at this time,
21812:51 Neanderthals were like us,
21912:52 and they sometimes looked after those who couldn't look after themselves.
22012:58 Ned's an Iraqi Neanderthal.
22113:01 So what else are we missing?
22213:03 What incredible scientific discoveries
22313:05 are we not making because we're not looking?
22413:10 And by the way, these places, they deserve narratives of hope,
22513:13 and science and exploration can be a part of that.
22613:17 In fact, I would argue that it can tangibly aid development,
22713:20 and these discoveries become a huge source of local pride.
22813:25 And that brings me to the second reason why science has a geography problem.
22913:31 See, we don't empower local academics, do we?
23013:35 Like, it's not lost on me
23113:37 that in my particular field of paleoanthropology
23213:42 we study human origins,
23313:43 but we have so few diverse scientists.
23413:48 And the thing is, these places are full of students and academics
23513:52 who are desperate to collaborate,
23613:54 and the truth is
23713:56 that for them,
23813:57 they have fewer security issues than us.
23914:02 I think we constantly forget that for them it's not a hostile environment;
24014:06 for them it's home.
24114:09 I'm telling you,
24214:11 research done in unstable places with local collaborators
24314:15 can lead to incredible discoveries,
24414:18 and that is what we are hoping upon hope to do in Socotra.
24514:24 They call Socotra
24614:27 the most alien-looking place on earth,
24714:30 and myself, Leon McCarron, Martin Edström and Rhys Thwaites-Jones could see why.
24814:36 I mean, look at this place.
24914:37 These places, they're not hellholes, they're not write-offs,
25014:41 they're the future frontline of science and exploration.
25114:46 90 percent of the reptiles on this island,
25214:49 37 percent of the plant species exist here and nowhere else on earth,
25314:55 and that includes this species of dragon's blood tree,
25414:57 which actually bleeds this red resin.
25515:01 And there's something else.
25615:02 People on Socotra, some of them still live in caves,
25715:07 and that is really exciting,
25815:09 because it means if a cave is prime real estate this century,
25915:12 maybe it was a few thousand years ago.
26015:14 But we need the data to prove it, the fossils, the stone tools,
26115:18 and so our scouting team have teamed up with other scientists,
26215:22 anthropologists and storytellers,
26315:24 international as well as local, like Ahmed Alarqbi,
26415:27 and we are desperate to shed a light on this place
26515:30 before it's too late.
26615:34 And now, now we just somehow need to get back
26715:38 for that really big expedition,
26815:40 because science,
26915:42 science has a geography problem.
27015:45 You guys have been a really lovely audience.
27115:47 Thank you.
27215:49 (Applause)